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Building Institutional Capacity for Undocumented Students' Success
Undocumented and DACAmented students are as diverse as their experiences.1 While a majority of these students identify as Latinx/a/o or Hispanic and many are from South or Central America, undocumented students of all ethnicities come from across the world—from Africa, Asia, Europe, Canada, the Caribbean, and Oceania (Pérez 2012). These students are no different from students with legal residency. Many have lived in the United States for most of their lives, attended elementary school and high school here, speak English fluently, and want to pursue a college education in order to make meaningful contributions to this country. But often, they were brought to the United States by their parents at a young age and lack a way to become legal residents or citizens. Despite tremendous financial and personal obstacles, undocumented and DACAmented students are academically talented, self-motivated, focused, and resilient.
As institutions of higher education continue to enroll undocumented and DACAmented students, higher education professionals struggle to understand how to better serve a student population that faces many challenges and barriers. It is no longer sufficient to support these students solely through informal, voluntary practices. Instead, colleges and universities must build institutional capacity for undocumented and DACAmented student success by creating and implementing comprehensive policies and practices that align with institutional mission and vision.
Institutionalizing Support at NEIU
With 30 percent of full-time students now identifying as Latinx/a/o, Northeastern Illinois University (NEIU) is the first public four-year university in Illinois to be federally designated as a Hispanic-Serving Institution (HSI) and the most ethnically diverse institution in the Midwest. As such, NEIU has a set of values that guide the work of the institution in the service of its students and the rest of the community. Among these values are access to opportunity and appreciation for the rich diversity of students, faculty, and staff. One key value in particular guided NEIU to institutionalize support for undocumented students: our focus on community.
For Northeastern, a focus on community means that the institution “has a special obligation to provide an environment that is supportive, nurturing, and participatory.” As articulated in the university’s values statement, “such an environment is characterized by civility, fostering humanity and engagement, and creates a sense of community through inclusion, mutual respect, and empowerment” (NEIU 2017). Furthermore, NEIU has a long history of serving undocumented students. Prior to the 2003 passage of Illinois House Bill 60, a state law that considers qualifying undocumented students as Illinois residents for the purposes of receiving in-state tuition rates at public colleges and universities, NEIU was working with Chicago-area high schools and community organizations to provide access to higher education and award private scholarships to undocumented students. Although the university did not identify specific services for these students, many faculty and staff informally assisted undocumented students by referring them to campus and community resources.
In 2011, a group of undocumented students at NEIU created the Undocumented, Resilient, and Organized (URO) student club. Their activism around the need to provide systematic and intentional support for undocumented students prompted NEIU to take a closer look at institutional practices and student needs. In 2012, a small one-year Innovation Grant awarded by NEIU’s then-president allowed for the creation of the Undocumented Student Project (USP), a committee composed of faculty, staff, and administrators from across divisions and academic programs. This committee created a resource guide for faculty and staff working with undocumented students on campus. Realizing that a one-year grant and one resource guide were only the beginning, the president awarded the grant for a second year in 2013. The USP committee began observing the obstacles undocumented students were experiencing and started proposing and implementing solutions.
This cross-divisional community effort allowed the university to begin institutionalizing support for undocumented and DACAmented students. While creating institutional support was not an easy task, the NEIU community was committed to supporting these students, and buy-in existed across the university from the very top leadership and across structural lines.
Expanding an Array of Services
USP committee members began institutionalizing support for undocumented and DACAmented students by educating each other about state and federal policies around immigration issues, as well as institutional policies directly affecting students. In the area of admissions, we realized that undocumented students were confused by the admissions application and hesitant to fill out the affidavit form that would grant them in-state tuition, which looked intimidating. Improvements to the admissions application and the addition of our NEIU logo to the affidavit form addressed some of these issues.
To further ease the application process, we created a website for current and prospective undocumented students. All talent and merit scholarships, and most foundation scholarships, were made available to qualifying students regardless of their citizenship status. In addition, we created an undocumented student ally training program for NEIU’s faculty and staff, modeled after Safe Zone workshops on LGBTQ awareness and allyship. To date, close to two hundred faculty and staff have become undocumented student allies by participating in the training.
NEIU’s deep sense of community extends beyond the campus. Over the years, we have established meaningful partnerships with community-based organizations, attorneys, state officials, and other Illinois colleges and universities to ensure that we can refer our students to reputable and caring people and organizations who can provide the services and advice we cannot. These partnerships have allowed for many collaborative opportunities, including DACA workshops, know-your-rights trainings, citizenship workshops, and healthcare accessibility presentations.
In 2014, the Undocumented Student Project was formally institutionalized within the Division of Student Affairs; it then became the Undocumented Student Resources office within the University’s multicultural center, and the university hired a director to lead the work. Today, the office strives to continue addressing the concerns and needs of our undocumented and DACAmented students, as well as the faculty and staff who work with them daily. Office staff provide students with one-on-one life advising, connect them with university and external resources, provide purposeful programming, train faculty and staff across the institution, connect with community-based organizations and immigration experts, establish connections with high schools and community colleges, and share best practices with other higher education institutions nationwide. Recently, the university has partnered with TheDream.US, a college access and success program, to provide private scholarships for DACAmented students.
Across the country, undocumented and DACAmented students are experiencing higher degrees of stress and fear due to President Trump’s announcement that DACA will be rescinded in March 2018. They are afraid that they or their parents may be deported, and they know that after their work permits expire, they will need to find alternative sources of income while still helping at home and maintaining the academic standing necessary to qualify for limited scholarship opportunities. As educators, we cannot add to this stress and fear or expect students to achieve perfection in order to prove that they are deserving. It is not sufficient to provide access or to claim that we embrace diversity. We must work together to remove the barriers preventing our students from reaching their full potential so they can be better equipped to contribute to American society and the world.
1. “DACAmented” students have documented their status through the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals program, created in 2012.
Northeastern Illinois University (NEIU). 2017. “Mission, Vision, and Values.” https://www.neiu.edu/about/mission-vision-and-values.
Pérez, William. 2012. Americans by Heart: Undocumented Latino Students and the Promise of Higher Education. New York: Teachers College Press.
Daniel López Jr. is Vice President for Student Affairs at Northeastern Illinois University and Luvia Moreno is Assistant Dean and Director for Undocumented Student Resources at Northeastern Illinois University.